Despite increasing evidence that alcohol is not very good for us even in relatively low doses, a complementary body of work shows that we seem to be drinking more and more. And this week, an analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) arrives at a startling statistic: Globally, alcohol is responsible for some 3 million deaths worldwide, which is over 5% of all deaths on the planet.
A disproportionate amount—three-quarters—of the deaths caused by alcohol consumption are male. Put another way, over 7.5% of male deaths are attributable to alcohol, whereas the number is 2.5% for women. And it’s even more dramatic in young people: in the 20–39 age group, 13.5% of total mortality was linked to alcohol use.
The WHO analyzed data from surveys across the world, to determine how often and how much people were drinking by geographic location and per capita.
They estimated 237 million men and 46 million women are drink excessively or abuse alcohol.
The team also estimates that 200 diseases and varieties of injury are caused by alcohol use. “Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as mental and behavioural disorders, including alcohol dependence, major noncommunicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases, as well as injuries resulting from violence and road clashes and collisions,” they write.
In fact, the authors estimate that excessive drinking accounts for 26% of mouth cancers, 48% of cases of liver cirrhosis, 26% of pancreatitis, 20% of tuberculosis, 11% of colorectal cancer, 5% of breast cancer, and 7% of hypertensive heart disease. They estimate that alcohol accounts for 29% of all injuries, including those from traffic accidents, interpersonal violence, and suicide.
Aside from physical disease and injury, alcohol can of course also have serious psychological and social costs, as it affects the individual and the people around him/her, and economic costs, in the form of lost work and healthcare costs.
The study did find a couple of encouraging trends. In the Americas, as well as African, Eastern Mediterranean and European countries, the percentage of drinkers has declined since 2000. The amount consumed per person went up from 2000 to 2010, but since then it’s held steady. The highest per capita amount is in Europe.
Still, the researchers predict that although certain countries, like Australia and Japan, might decrease their per capita consumption, in other areas—the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil—it’s expected to rise in the next 10 years. Similarly, other recent studies have shown that in the U.S., heavy drinking and binge-drinking have increased in the last several years, especially in minorities, older people, and women.
There are of course many reasons why people drink, from cultural norms to self-medication, which makes it very tricky to address. Although the WHO stresses the importance of public health campaigns, it’s not totally clear which type work, given the magnitude of the problem. The “best buys” methods, as the WHO calls them, involve increasing alcohol taxes and restricting advertising, whereas the more involved science-based/information-sharing efforts, like campaigns to illustrate what the research has indicated about alcohol’s health risks, may ultimately do more. Time will tell whether public health efforts can keep up with a behavior that’s historically and psychologically extremely complex.
By Alice G. Walton|Forbes